The relationship between the sexes in Defoe´s Moll Flanders

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

16 Pages, Grade: 3,0 (C)



Daniel Defoe
His Life
His Novels

Moll Flanders
Main Part


Daniel Defoe

His Life

Daniel Defoe was born in 1660, in Cripplegate, London. In 1683, he became a merchant, a profession that allowed him to travel around Great Britain and the Continent for a longer period of time, from 1685 to 1692.[1]

Because of engaging himself in political matters, e.g. joining forces of William of Orange in 1688, he experienced two bankruptcies, the first in 1692, the second eleven years later. He was then also imprisoned in Newgate for his work The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. As punishment he had to stand in the pillory for one hour per day on three consecutive days.

From 1703 to 1714, Daniel Defoe was a secret agent. First experiences in this profession he had gained from 1697 to 1701, as secret agent and confidant of William III. Occupied as such he traveled around England and Scotland influencing people's opinion. Within the time frame from above, from 1704 to 1713, he was the author and editor of the periodical The Review.

In 1713, he was not only arrested for debt but also imprisoned for three ironic tracts on the Hanoverian succession. Luckily, the Crown pardoned him. Two years later he became a secret agent once more. This time of the Whigs, whom he served in different ways almost until his death.

With 59 he wrote his Robinson Crusoe, probably the most famous of his characters. The work and character to be discussed in this paper, Moll Flanders, was written by the 62-year old Daniel Defoe. Two other important writings, Roxana and A tour through the whole island of Great Britain, were published two years later, in 1724.

Daniel Defoe died at the age of 71, at Bunhill Fields, London. He was buried there the same year.

His Novels

As can be read from his curriculum vitae, Defoe turned late to writing novels, and despite this fact he succeeded in making them and himself famous over the centuries following his death.[2]

His novels describe a variety of characters, fates and events, as well as a variety of personal and social experience. Defoe covers different topics not only bluntly and objectively in their urgency, or far-reaching in their visible or hidden problems of history, but also in their artistic and social references. In short, his heroes have a critical look at society. For the first time a middle-class hero becomes the center of the novel, e.g. Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

Defoe lives in the 18th century, and as a writer he forges links between the adventure story and picaresque novel of the 16th and 17th century to the more individualized and in their views progressive novels of the 18th century. Furthermore, at that time it was rather man who purchased books, nevertheless in the 18th century many novels start featuring female narrators addressing women.

In his novels Moll Flanders and Roxana (1724), the reader finds women narrators twice, and speaking at least for the first text, (s)he finds him- or herself directly addressed several times. "Moll Flanders, Roxana and many other female narrators of this period saw themselves as living and narrating exemplary women's lives and presenting material of particular significance to female readers - their 'Fellow-Creatures' - to whom they may offer advice and issue warnings based on their experiences."[3]

Moll Flanders


As mentioned in His Novels, Daniel Defoe wrote Moll Flanders in 1722, a novel about an ordinary woman who fights for her dignity and existence in a society hostile to her. Having lived a long life of hardships, she speaks about the course of her life, reflects events and often addresses the reader to make them aware of things she was not aware of back when they happened to her, or she asks the reader to make their own judgements. "The moral, indeed, of all my history is left to be gathered by the senses and judgment of the reader; I am not qualified to preach to them. Let the experience of one creature completely wicked, and completely miserable, be a storehouse of useful warning to those that read."[5][4]

In the 18th century, a woman neither had much choice nor something like an own voice to express her wants or needs. She was dominated by a patriarchal society. Moll Flanders portrays the difficulties women had at that time, yet not she alone has trouble making a living. One of her husbands, for instance, dies because he has lost a lot of money, and another is forced to emigrate. These are two of her husbands, but Moll marries more than twice, and the reader will see that all relationships are expressions of her yearning for security and survival. However, they also imply how easily women became prostitutes, a criminal activity exercised by many females in London and other cities. "In fact, some scholars have asserted that Moll is a composite of several real criminals, particularly Moll King and Callico Sarah,"[6] which might be the reason for having struck many readers as profoundly real.

Defoe reacted sensitively to injustice and was always curious about causes and origins. He had six daughters - four survived - and had been in prison, as is aforementioned, so he knew about women's situations, and the way he looked at law-breakers was neither sentimental nor unforgiving. He "habitually sketched the forces that inclined them toward crime, and these included broken homes, negligent parents, poor education, bad company, and youthful mistakes."[7]

Last but not least, by focusing on a heroine, Daniel Defoe has intensified the struggle between men and women: Without "a man's strength, education, social advantages, and expectations, Moll's dreams of a secure middle-class life are castles in the air, for she soon has to combat starvation."[8]


[1] see: Böker, Uwe, Prof. Dr., Reader - Crime and Literature: Daniel Defoe and His Times. (Dresden: University of Dresden, WS 2000/2001), p. 57.

[2] see: Weimann, Robert, Daniel Defoe – Einführung in das Romanwerk. (Halle / Saale: Verlag Sprache und Literatur, 1962), pp. 49-52.

[3] Spaas, Lieve and Brian Stimpson, eds., Robinson Crusoe – Myths and Metamorphoses. (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996), p. 31.

[4] see: Backscheider, Paula R., Moll Flanders – The Making of a Criminal Mind. (Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1990), pp. 1-3, 21. & see: Lieve Spaas, ed., Robinson Crusoe, 1996, p. 38. & see: Richetti, John J., Daniel Defoe. (Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1987), p. 87.

[5] Defoe, Daniel, The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders. (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1994), p. 295.

[6] Paula R. Backscheider, The Making of a Criminal Mind, 1990, p. 2.

[7] Paula R. Backscheider, The Making of a Criminal Mind, 1990, p. 2.

[8] Ibid, p. 21.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


The relationship between the sexes in Defoe´s Moll Flanders
Dresden Technical University  (Institute for Anglistics/American Studies)
Seminar: Crime and Literature: Daniel Defoe and His Time
3,0 (C)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
465 KB
Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, Crime, English Literature
Quote paper
Silke-Katrin Kunze (Author), 2001, The relationship between the sexes in Defoe´s Moll Flanders, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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